Thursday, January 27, 2011

Breathe Love

Three years ago I tattooed a hand-written note to myself on the inside of my right wrist.

After a particularly intense January filled with stress of writing a paper for conferences about forgiveness and 9/11, and after having submitted all of my applications for graduate school, I felt like I need a reminder to keep things in perspective. What do I need to do? Breathe. What else? Love. Sometimes, I want to be sure to breathe love itself, to live breath by breath out of compassion, kindness, and love. And when times get particularly difficult, all I need to remind myself of is, "Breathe, love." Sometimes, that is enough.

Now, at the end of another long and intense January when I am again writing papers for conference submissions, I find myself returning to that memo to myself. Although I am not worried about getting into graduate school these days, I do have the stress building inside of me thanks to a pile of 42 BIG, dense canonical philosophy texts that I have to get through in the next semester for my comprehensive exams. But there's more to my need for a reminder to "breathe love."

As my writing has indicated over these past couple of days, I have been acutely aware of a strange vulnerability that comes from putting myself "out there." I teach from the heart, because I really do care about my students, about education, about growing from the learning that can occur in a classroom. I write from deep inside about issues and ideas that are personally and politically important to me, because I think that philosophy, and reading, and writing are often rooted to these very personal things anyway, and that pursuing them honestly is probably the best way to proceed if we really want to make sense of our experiences and create some changes. And I am honest about these "personal things" in my public and professional spheres because I don't really see a divide between what is public, private, political anyway, and I think that being open about these connections is one of the only ways to help other people come to terms with the interconnections of issues and experiences in their lives. My made up word reflects this interrelatedness of life and philosophy. "Philifesophy" denies the notion that some things are suitable for "thinking" philosophically and that these are best kept separate from what happens in our "real lives." A really simple way to explain it is that I deeply care about the things that I do. And I pursue them with the sort of intentionality, dedication, and expectation that follows suit. And doing so comes with serious risks.

I am acutely aware of how I "put myself out there" not simply because of the sheer act of doing so. My acute feelings arise as unnameable tensions, turmoils, stirrings, or unsettling dis-eases that I often don't really know how to deal with. I think, perhaps, these are the feelings that accumulate in my chest, in my lungs (at least that's where I always experience it) when I don't know how to process and assimilate the very real chances that what I do, who I am, and what I share with others will not be accepted or appreciated for what it is. When I share myself with others--my feelings, my fears, my passions, my ideas, my struggles, my insights--I do so out of the interest to share, to create a connection, to facilitate a mutual relationship. Unfortunately, when it comes to philosophy, some people are not interested in true dialogue and listening to one another for understanding. Instead, some people just want to tell you that you are wrong. And when students think that what I do is too political, or philosophers think that what I write about is too personal, by most other people's standards they are probably right. Not only is it a possibility that my passion, intention, and sincere desire to connect on these levels with these things will often not be reciprocated. It is a fact. And I feel like I haven't yet developed a way to deal with such "less than preferred" situations except by hardly acknowledging them and trying to move on.

This, I know, is not going to be a healthy or sustainable practice.

Given all of this, I can understand why it is easier for some people to just divide up their lives: "This is my work. This is my personal stuff. That way, when you criticize my work, I don't have to take it personally." Or, if they don't impose a strict separation, I can understand why it is easier for some to harden up and forget about what other people say. This, I think, is what it means to develop a "thick skin." You find ways to make your skin so thick that people's opinions, actions, words, don't affect you. You become impenetrable. Like a rock or layer of armor, nothing gets to the "mushy-gushy" stuff inside. Or like rubber, what other people say bounces right off of you (We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking to what we learn as children, even in things like little kids' rhymes). These approaches might seem to work for some, but I am skeptical. I know that for me, I don't have a thick skin. But more importantly, I don't want one. And I don't want to divide up my life. That runs counter to everything that I stand for and have been working towards.

So what do I do? If walls and separation and rubbery-thick skin aren't viable options, but failing to healthily address how other people's unfavorable responses and resistances affect me isn't going to work for long either, I am left with few options.

Except to look at my wrist.

It's strange how a mindfulness tattoo can be so quickly forgotten and go unnoticed. That goes to show how quickly we can fall out of some practices. But what I want to do, and what I think I must do, is find a way to stay open without letting whatever comes my way harm me and make me sick. If I can return to the practice of cultivating loving-kindness, compassionate understanding, and transforming negativity within myself so that when I exhale something more like love rather than pollution comes out of me, I may just overcome the feeling that I need to impose separations and grow a thicker skin (There was another reference in there to questionable things we teach our kids: "Breathe in the good...Exhale the bad." Well great, now we just have a whole lot of bad out there in the world). In fact, what I want to do is the exact opposite of being incapable of being affected by others. I know it is delusional to think that others don't shape and affect us, so the key insight that I want to stay mindful of, especially right now, is to deal with these real effects (affects?) in a healthy, loving, and compassionate way. For my own sake, and for the sake of others.

I recognized it a while ago that I am actually lucky to have been assigned to teach Asian Philosophies this semester. And again, I find myself grateful for the unexpected twists and turns in my path. Even though it wasn't my first choice, and even though my original (and very cool) syllabus for a cutting edge approach to Asian and Asian American philosophy got rejected because it didn't match the description in the course catalog, I think it is a good thing that I am going to be teaching Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. I am glad to be returning to those simple ideas that helped ground me during my college years, ideas like mindfulness, compassion, and breathing. Because, as I have experienced already, teaching is really one of the greatest opportunities for learning. And I see that I need to relearn some things.

As my cough returns, my hope is that I can transform those sharp and desperate inhales and exhales into what my body is actually craving for them to be--deep, nourishing breaths.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

About FACE, So it Goes These Days

Last week I started to recognize that my sick-body was returning. To be honest, it makes me worried when I cough so hard that I fear I might vomit, and what comes up is mucus that's been accumulating for who-knows-how-long. If I wanted to be poetic right now, the metaphor would be one of an emotional purging. But this stuff is what I do my research on--the way that our bodies take on certain states and feelings, how social realities become biological, physiological, and not just psychological, qualities of one's being. For now, I'll continue by keeping Nietzsche in mind. The idea that "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" is a good one. It makes you feel like the struggle, the sickness, are worth it. But I also know that for Nietzsche the highest hope is to become a convalescent. Health and life are key. Maybe you do have to be sick, at some point, to embody these things. Maybe it's the case even to be a great philosopher. I hope that I am stronger when I get through this sickness. Metaphors abound on this one, too. And I have always said that my ideal relationships would be Nietzschean ones.

But in the vein of weakness, the past week has been trying for other reasons. I found myself feeling vulnerable to the judgments and criticisms of others. Part of it comes from putting oneself out there, to be seen, heard, and in turn, evaluated. I now know it is true that the internet's capacity to foster anonymity does not help matters. People feel like they can say anything. Etiquette, care, respect--those go out the window. The same goes for anonymous student evaluations, apparently. I got one in a stack of others that may seem flattering to some people. But to me, it was just inappropriate, and wholly dismissive of what I care so deeply about, namely, creating a place for learning and growth. Maybe Levinas was onto something about the face and ethics. When people don't need to say it, or do it, to your face, they feel no need to be responsible to the other. Responding to the other is displaced by an opportunity to be one's own closed self-referent.

And finally, there are those who have judged me out of their own presumptions about me. The strange thing about prejudices is that their effect of removing the personhood, the particularity, and the uniqueness of someone by making them an image, a simple, flat creation, is only fully appreciated when it is experienced. You have to feel this to understand the kind of effect that hits you in your chest. And one feels helpless to say, "No wait. That's not me. See me!"

I've also been forced to realize that when my own acts, my own ideas, and my own effort (again, mostly via the internet and admittedly about things that I desire credit for) go unrecognized or are misidentified as belonging to others, I struggle to know how to handle these situations with grace. The theme for the week has been one of truly coming face to face with my own need for recognition. Not just praise. Not just credit. But the kind of acknowledgment and respect that comes from a true understanding. (And, ironically, though not surprisingly, I have been teaching my students in Asian Philosophies about Confucius' notion of the junzi, the exemplary person. Some of their characteristics are to be humble and modest yet do great things. And part of that is remaining dignified and humble when your good skills and acts go unacknowledged or are underappreciated. I am working on it.)

To be seen. To be understood. These have been timeless hopes for me and those which frequently present the greatest degrees of unlikeliness.

And, I hope that whoever found my notebook last week gets all of this. They (perhaps "they" are actually a trash can by now) remain the faceless, anonymous reader of my most recent deep, personal, and philifesophical writings. I wish even harder that I would be able to get that back.

But that, too, is rather unlikely.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Products of our "Culture"

Some thoughts from today:

1). You can learn a lot from your relationships with people.

We often hear things like, "You can't be in a relationship with another unless you can first be in a relationship with yourself," and "You need to learn to be single (and okay with it) before you can be a good partner for someone else"... While those may be really good things to do--to learn how to fulfill your own needs, to know that you don't need to be in a relationship with a significant other to be happy, to spend time getting to know yourself, your needs, your wants--I have learned that there are also some things that you can only learn from being with others. Maybe "others" in general, but I am particularly thinking about being in a romantic, emotional, personal, deep relationship with someone who knows you intimately, perhaps better than you know yourself.

Over the past year, I really have learned a great deal about myself, but the majority of my learning was about things that I could not have shown to myself, no matter how hard I may have tried. Perhaps there were things that I knew I wanted to work on, in theory, but I couldn't have put them into practice alone. Despite however self-aware I was and am, there are some challenges that I could not present for myself. Like what it means to really trust someone. To really respect someone enough to really, genuinely listen to them. To acknowledge when I don't know something, and not just because I haven't ever thought about it before, but because I truly do not know. And perhaps I couldn't because our experiences are so different.

And I learned that there are possible ways to address these differences that don't include reaching an agreement, determining which way is best, or forcing an opinion for the sake of taking a stand. I learned what it means to accept another person. To step up to seriously uncomfortable, counter-intuitive situations without saying anything or doing what has over my lifetime become a habit, a "knowledge" in my body that moves me. To accept that there are lots of things that are different from how I might handle things, how I might engage with others, how I might hold myself and act in the world, and that this is okay.

2). Cultural Differences are REAL

Much of my learning has arisen out my bi-cultural relationship. Over the past year, I have come to a deeper appreciation of just how "Western" I am and how very different an Asian culture in, let's say, Taiwan directs people's lives. Maybe you could get this "cultural sensitivity" from traveling or spending lengths of time abroad, but let me tell you, a way to feel like you've hit a brick wall with your face is to confront these differences in a relationship with a significant other. The most well-intentioned things, which always come from a place of love, can come off as very rude, insensitive, inappropriate, or extremely frustrating. One can come off as too dumb, too strong, too arrogant, too timid, too shy, too polite, too week, too impatient, or too patient....almost too anything. And that is very hard to deal with if you haven't been able to actually realize exactly what it is that you do that comes off that way.

I don't want to use "cultural differences" as a cop-out, but it is often a very frequent source of our misunderstandings, which can often lead to conflict. And what I have realized is that some of my most personal values and convictions are not really my own simply because I am a strong, reflective, confident woman. Much of what I do comes from my culture. Even though I read and talk a lot about social constructivism and cultures influence on our subjectivity, quite often all of this remains pretty abstract. Importantly, then, I think I have started to realize that I didn't/don't really know what is meant by "American culture."

If asked to provide a cursory list, I probably would have identified western, American culture with mostly very bad views that have supported very bad things in history. Slavery, colonialism, racism, exploitation, elitism, mass consumerism and so many other evils were products of an emphasis on strict liberal individualism, capitalism, "picking oneself up by one's boot-straps" without acknowledging who made your boots, assumed "rights" to the pursuit of one's happiness (even at the cost of other beings and the environment), etc. But that's because I'm sooooooooooo radical.

What I didn't fully appreciate about myself is that the way I communicate, which I often think reflects my personal emphasis on authenticity, my genuine desire to be always honest with others, my commitment to personal integrity and continued development, and my deep hope for real, meaningful human connection with others are also "cultural" things. Maybe not all Americans talk the way I talk, are not as blunt, direct, and transparent as me, and maybe not all Americans value these things so much that they live each day by always striving to approach their students and friends and family members with the same level of respect and honesty (by presenting my most authentic self). But all of this assumes to reflect a certain kind of "respect," a particular sort of "honesty," and is rooted in a non-universalizable conception of "self."

Oh, I could go on and on about the many bumps and hiccups that I have encountered this year and the many hours of tangled conversation I have participated in to try to find a common ground or mutual understanding or satisfactory approach about what to do next, and I could list out the things that I find irritating, irrational, unhealthy, counter-productive about "other ways to do things"...but I won't.

Because what I have tried to do is think about my situation and these issues more gracefully.

In philosophy, and especially feminist philosophy or social philosophy or any liberatory philosophy that takes social equality and justice as an end, this problem is captured by a question that often comes up, "How are we to work together to reach a satisfactory state of affairs if we are trying to addressing the varied, multiple, and diverse needs of very different kinds of people if their/our experiences are so disparate that we can't understand one another or our respective situations?" One response, which is my favorite so far, has been offered most eloquently by one of my favorite philosophers, Ladelle McWhorter. She explains that “if we discipline ourselves to the pleasures and powers of connections that occur alongside of but differ from the pleasures of knowledgeableness, of identities and stalwart commitments, if we stray far enough afield of our carefully classified selves, something unforeseeable, something new—something that might be called free—may very well occur” ("The Revenge of the Gay Nihilist", 2001, 125).

3). By not knowing everything, I learn a lot.

I have realized that my only recourse (thus far..) is to create a space for our differences without trying to mitigate them. And in doing so, I actually give myself more space to also grow beyond what I have been constituted as by my culture.

Instead of apple pie, our patriotic favorite, I think American's need to eat more Humble Pie. And put ourselves in situations where we can better learn WHY.

P.S. Thanks go out to Del for being my go-to rock star, favorite contemporary philosopher. Thanks, too, to my friends for their conversations today. And many thanks to my girlfriend. None of the seemingly mundane things in life would be as painfully complicated and frustrating, I mean, would be nearly as growthful of learning opportunities without your sagely wisdom. And patience... ;)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What is this Body? What is Philosophy?

As I was reading for my comprehensive exams this week, I came across this passage just after writing my last post about my bodily askesis and goals:

"Philosophy is not, in spite of its self-representation, a rational, intellectual system of inquiry and knowledge acquisition, based purely on truth considerations and the requirements of conceptual coherence. It is practice...a practice that does things, legitimizing and challenging other practices, enabling things to happen or preventing them from occurring...Far from contemplative reflection, philosophy is a consequence of the drive to live, to conquer, a will to power that is primarily corporeal."

"The will to power animates, moves, energizes and strives to proliferate. This may explain why Nietzsche insisted on a new type of philosophy or knowledge, one which, instead of remaining sedentary, ponderous, stolid, was allied with the arts of movement: theater, dance, and music. Philosophy itself was to be written walking--or, preferably, dancing. This is because philosophy is a bodily activity and is...capable of dynamizing and enhancing life. Philosophy and truth are capable of affirming active power when they, in their turn, return power and force to the body from which they derive."

-Elizabeth Grosz, 'Volatile Bodies' (1994), pp.126-128

P.S. Thanks to my family for being wonderful and amazing.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Year Askesis and Bodily Goals

New years come as if they are the moons themselves that renew each January. Each one has a face if you look closely, and shadows from the past mark the features of the year to come. What is and has been for whole revelations are revealed through a light that reflects back from a source that I know all too well. It's illumination remains, and my hopes and dreams are illustrated on future night skies. Again.

Last January was welcomed with an opening up my living space and the sound of two voices with a single guitar resonating off of bathroom walls singing about birds and sanctuaries. The yellow bathroom light brought about the first rise of the sun. And then the song was left unfinished, unpolished. A tone of disappointment for a hope of deep love echoes still.  Did this set the rhythm of connection and loss? What changes these moments make.

As some friends and lovers departed to places far away (across the country, out of state, out of touch), my deepest bonds returned. Brought back from the west coast to the east, my most faithful mirror visited twice after a year of thousands of miles between us. I saw her again as the year came to a close, and I am grateful for the ways that her voice has been a hug to my ear during so many of these difficult months. The same is true of another good friend. Its wonderful to think about how far we have come and the lengths that we will take to eat a good meal together. Of course, another wonderful homecoming occurred when my first baby came into my life (that's my cat, and I have grown a new kind of non-human love for him).

It has been a year rich with family as well. Our maturity this year might bring me closer to my brothers in years to come. Many unusual circumstances led to seeing my family multiple times in various places across the country. Idaho, California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. As I connected with my extended family back in the state of my birth, this meant for me a reconnection to my roots and gave way to a most unspeakably personal moment with my great-grandmother before she passed away in June. Her life has held a family, a lineage, and a great portion of my identity together. Being with her after 11 years since our last visit and just a day before her death was one of the most important things that I did this year. Her last look may have been directed to me. That, along with the weak squeeze of her hand and her faint smile at the good news in my life are now the most tangible memories that ground my connection to her. After nearly 108 years of her life, I am so glad to have shared that one moment of that one summer night with her.

This year has been marked by great growth, incredible challenges, and a stretching of myself in new directions that I could not have anticipated. With the start of the spring semester, which always begins in the coldest of winter, I met my first students. They cultivate poignant struggles. And after a semester of learning myself, of reading through key passages to my own realization in front of their watchful eyes and open ears, their experiences gave me reason to stay on the course of my goals. The first semester of teaching balanced out the two years I spent trying to figure out if I really needed or wanted to be doing academic philosophy.  Now, after those first two classes, then my summer group, and this last class in the fall, I'm so grateful for the teaching and learning that has occurred with my students. They have motivated me to remain a humble learner myself.

The newness of the year was incredible. I didn't decide to live in a new place. I didn't change my career plans. But I did dedicate myself to the challenge of loving and trusting someone more than I have ever been able to do before. Through this experience I have gained a new understanding of my self, my limits, my fears, my gifts. My weaknesses were emphasized as places for careful attention and growth, not spots for perpetual failure and pain. My limits were frustrated. Rather than closing in, I made them stay. Open. I felt the difference that stillness, patience, trust, and not-knowing brings. And the things that I have learned about myself and her have even exceeded the many wonderful memories that came out of our adventures. We went to Pittsburgh, New York a handful of times, DC twice. I've gained new tastes, taken loads of pictures, met new friends, and gained new flexibility with all the little things that have previously been able to drive me crazy. I felt a new way of connecting with someone, of being understood, of seeing someone through their layers. If nothing else, at least we know now that it is possible to have the sort of relationship that we hope for. At least in some ways.

And the most amazing thing has been my connection with others. This year contained the anniversary of my cousin's passing, a beautiful person with whom I had a connection that was unique and hard to explain. But she, like my great-grandmother, is one who has shown me a real possibility for connections and relationships. I am left wondering how we mark our connections with others. What is real? What is true? What is valuable? What makes sense? Some of the most important and lasting connections this year will reside in my memory as those that were left incomplete, unspoken, and hardly reasonable for most people. From the outside looking in, one might think that those connections were insignificant, or simply nostalgic at best. But I am not so sure. Dreams have kept some people closer to me than emails. Distant memories and unrealized future holidays have reserved a space for possible relationships.  And I don't know what to make of those in relation to some of my everyday, face-to-face encounters.

If there is one word that captures the year it is "movement." Literally, in addition to all of the places already listed, I also found myself in Boston and crossing the border into Canada for conferences. And with that, I felt the highs and lows that come out of following your passion and encountering human disappointments. It happens. Everything above are memories that have and will continue to shape me. The image of all this traveling leads to a picture of expanding, pulling, drifting, straying. This year, I have moved out, beyond my locale, taken myself to new places. And when I returned each time, I came back changed. This is not just a cheesy way of talking about a year's worth of experiences. It is a way to embody a lived askesis. The movement has often been geographical and quite literal--taking me to new places, putting me in new situations, placing me within new relationships and interactions with others. But the effect has been ontological. And perhaps ethical. I am changed, transformed, and becoming more open to the process and its effects. I am not discovering myself in this process, I am becoming myself each day.

My goal for the new year is to experience this movement in my body itself. Through cars and planes and trains I have covered this entire country multiple times in just 365 days. Now, I want to experience the same openness to change by directing that askesis into my bodily experiences. I am not sure how to go about it just yet. But I have some ideas. They have to do with limits. With challenges. With experiments. And I imagine that rhythm will be present. Other people, too. And probably even some fear. But joy, pleasure, excitement, play, and fun are also part of touching the uncertainty of one's bodily limits. Practicing new and multiple practices will be my focus.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Good things come out of awkward situations

It's been a crazy month! I wrote my papers. I ended my classes. I finished my own coursework. And in terms of professionalism, I did another good thing. I made my professional philosophical debut! I drove into the Boston blizzard and attended the Eastern APA conference (that's short for the American Philosophical Association).

This conference is kind of a big deal--candidates on the job market have interviews, people try to be as impressive as possible, hundreds of people attend to outshine one another, and, of course, philosophers present their latest work. I was able to present by a fluke. Accidents and naive self-nomination granted me the opportunity to comment on two papers (one paper by one of my besties, Jim Martell, and another by John Corvino, a philosopher whose work I read with Jim in an independent study which opened onto our friendship in 2006). I also presented my own paper on Irigaray. And amazingly, both sessions went really well.

It was encouraging to partake in panels where the conversations were lively and collaborative, where the audience was engaged and provided really helpful suggestions, and mostly, where the spirit of philosophy (as I think of it) was cultivated. I was so pleased to get great support and encouragement from people who attended my sessions and to get positive feedback from my panel members.  I am grateful that my friends were there to offer their enthusiastic eyes and patient ears. And I am really excited about the people who I met throughout the three days there.

I didn't anticipate such a positive experience, but that's because all I ever hear about the Eastern APA is how intense and intimidating it is. For instance, the "smokers" are receptions with a bad reputation. When people used to smoke indoors, a thick cloud of smoke would hang in a ballroom while job candidates hover around tables where their interviews sit. Though the smoke is gone these days, all of the awkward, insecurity, and nerves remain while candidates linger until the perfect opportunity presents itself to elbow in and get another chance to talk to the people at the tables who greatly dictate their futures. Despite the tense tummies of almost everyone else in the room, I was having a great time floating around, meeting new people, talking with previous acquaintances, and feeding off the energy in the room. Maybe it was the awkwardness of it all that actually worked in my favor. Rather than feeling weird about approaching people and just introducing yourself, I had an excuse to talk to whomever. It also probably helped that I am not looking for jobs right now.

Anyway, I just had to report that my experience at the APA was really, really a positive one. I didn't know what to expect, but I was very pleased with the overall sense of encouragement and support that I got from everyone. I left feeling even more enthusiastic, motivated, and, yep, a bit more confident. That's a great thing.

And that is really the best part about this past month, and this past semester. If I could describe a very important change in me, my attitude, and my work, it is that I am feeling more comfortable with myself, with my voice, and with my goals in philosophy. Confidence is hard to come by in fields like this without coming off as an ego-maniac or a jerk, but I have hoped that sheer passion, honesty, integrity, and a real love for philosophy will come through with the confidence more than anything else. Or, perhaps more likely it is my commitment to all of those things- the real stuff that grounds me in my work and keeps me excited about it- that actually lends towards a greater sense of confidence.

Believe me, I am happy and relieved to feel more confident with my work, and I am also happy to sense that this confidence is realized by being honest, humble, open, and straight-forward with my thinking. It gives me hope for my future with philosophy. And it makes everything a hell of a lot easier and way more enjoyable to just let what comes most naturally guide me.

So, here's to the new year!